How Akshaya Patra served a whopping 70 million servings of food during the pandemic

We speak to Shridhar Venkat, CEO of Akshaya Patra of how they strategised to feed millions of poor and needy from feeding millions of children during this pandemic, their future plans and much more
People receiving grocery bags from volunteers (Pics: The Akshaya Patra Foundation)
People receiving grocery bags from volunteers (Pics: The Akshaya Patra Foundation)

With a population of 1.3 billion people, India has grown exponentially in terms of technology, industries and agriculture sectors. However, millions of people still struggle to get one meal a day, especially children and women. It is rightly said that this world can't be peaceful with one-third rich and two-third people who are hungry. Therefore, The Akshaya Patra Foundation is trying to feed millions of hungry and poor people across India during this COVID-19 pandemic and restore that peace. You will be surprised to know that they have served 70 million servings. Shridhar Venkat, CEO of Akshaya Patra Foundation speaks to us in detail about their servings and the hunger issues they came across

Excerpts from an interesting interview:

We know that Akshaya Patra Foundation has played a key role in feeding lakhs of school children through midday meals but how did you strategise the feeding millions of people across India during the COVID lockdown?
Akshaya Patra's vision is to see that no child is deprived of education because of hunger. Therefore, we feed 1.8 million children in over 20,000 government schools in 12 states and two union territories. Similarly, when disasters happened in Kerala, Chennai, Assam and other states, Akshaya Patra was put into action at the request of the Prime Minister's office and the local authorities.
We have always come forward to help the country in terms of solving hunger issues. For example, the installed capacity of Akshaya Patra is worth 2.2 million people in one shift. So even when the Nepal earthquake happened in Kathmandu, we set up the kitchen within 10 days and served over 1.49 million people in a short span of three months.

When the COVID-19 pandemic happened, we got calls from the state governments and we were all ready to come forward and serve people. What we did was we repurpose our set up from food for education to food for relief. And that's how we started feeding poor people during this pandemic. We also had a two-way approach — apart from the meals, we also packed grocery boxes and each box had a ration that can make up to  42 meals for an adult. So far, Akshaya Patra has facilitated 70 million servings and about half of it was dry rations and the rest was in the form of cooked meals.

Shridhar Venkat, CEO, Akshaya Patra (Pic: Twitter)

It is great to hear that you have facilitated 70 million servings but it needs a huge flow of funds. At this crucial juncture, how did you find the funds for this initiative?
When it comes to midday meal programmes, we are a Public-Private Partnership, we raise funds from corporates, trusts and foundations over and above of what the government gives us. For instance, if Rs 15 is the cost of per meal, then at least Rs 9 comes from corporates and individuals who have been supporting over the past few years and the remaining Rs 6 comes from the Government of India. But when it came to the pandemic, we got tremendous support from some of our corporate donors including Adobe, LG electronics, Loreal, Epigamia, Dabur, ITC, MUFG PEPSI foundation and several eminent corporates. And not to forget, we had over 1 lakh individual donors. Apart from this, we got volunteers' support from Amazon, Biocon, Britannia Industries to supply food parcels to the migrant labourers on Shramik train. We also got a lot of support from National Law School and youngsters from BITS Pilani.

You might have come across many stories of people who were hungry before you got to them. Can you share some of them with us?
When we were doing relief work in the North Eastern part of India, three young girls reached out to the local authorities. These girls were orphans and they were left without food. The authorities approached us and we served them with three grocery boxes to these children. They were so visibly happy that they got food for the next 21 days. Like this, there are thousands of cases where the affected people stood in a queue to take food and groceries. Another important factor was we got tremendous support from the local government and bureaucrats. A war room was created through Whatsapp where the Government of Karnataka and senior officials coordinated to serve people.

Many of these migrant labourers were hit when they lost jobs and food was a big issue for them. Hence, our initiative was very well appreciated by the migrant labourers, local authorities and others. For instance, we took this huge marriage hall called Tripura Vasini where we packed groceries in the box and the authorities picked them to distribute. I think this situation was heart moving for us to see how the nation came together to fight this pandemic.

While we know that this pandemic is not going to end soon and keeping that in mind, how long you will continue to feed the homeless?
We are determined to win over the pandemic. Our government is taking adequate measures and I know that India is a very resilient nation. Let's see it from the government's food perspective. Of course, in some states, the government has given directions to serve dry rations and if the government asks us to provide meals at the schools so that these children and their families can have it, we are ready for it. We are here to continue supporting the needy during this pandemic. What we require is continuous support from the government in the form of subsidies and support from corporate and individual donors.

Cooking meals for millions of people is not easy. We want to know if there has been a labour crunch in the kitchen or transporting food from one place to another as there were several rules in place.
In the month of March and April, we noticed this fear psychosis among civil workers and some of them were stuck in Bengaluru. But many workers ensured that they were back to work. At the same time, Akshaya Patra ensured good hygiene protocols, food safety and quality. We made sure that our quality checking team and local kitchen heads trained these workers and volunteers to follow hygiene protocols. Then, the local authorities who came to check our kitchen were happy to see and said that we are several notches above than what the government has recommended when it comes to safety protocol. We did face issues when it came to labourers in the initial days of lockdown. There were also issues with the logistics and transport but kitchen sourcing and central sourcing team got together to get groceries on time. The vendors and stockyard were equally supportive at this time.

Have you planned any safety protocols if/when the schools open and you have to serve the midday meals to children?
We have created a standard operating procedure for the kitchen which is much stronger than what it was earlier. If the schools open up, we have come up with a process that can ensure there is social distancing between children and the person who serves food. We are all set for midday meals again. In fact, we want the schools to start at the earliest so that children get food and education.

Since, it is a lockdown and the schools are shut, did your people send dry ration or groceries to these children's homes?
As of now, we have not given dry rations to the home directly. But the people whom we served the grocery boxes or meals, many of their children go to the government schools. We will be happy to provide grocery boxes to the government school children if there is a specific call and we are also waiting for the government directive on it.

What is your 25th-anniversary milestone in terms of serving more meals to the people or implementing new initiatives?
Currently, we are at serving 1.8 million children and what we would like to do is make Akshaya Patra more sustainable, implement new models to optimise our cost. For instance, saving one paisa in Akshaya Patra's cost of meal is food for 4,000 children for a whole year. So saving more money would help serve more number of children. Our resolve for our 25th anniversary is to resolve classroom hunger and we sincerely hope that India would win over this issue by 2030 or 2035.  

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